A few years ago I was playing in an intramural softball league over the summer. As a full time college student with a part time job, my exercise time was minimal. Outside of a 20-30 minute jog here and there or the rare bike ride to campus, these Saturday morning games were the most physical activity I got in a week. Getting together with friends to play a competitive (but not TOO competitive) game of softball was so much fun… until it wasn’t. One week I decided to sit out a game and got a call that if I didn’t show up our team would be one female short and have to forfeit. I rushed to the field and was immediately handed a bat. Pitch. Swing. Contact. Run. OUCH!!!!!!
Immediately I felt a searing pain in the front of both legs, like a tearing cramp that made movement nearly impossible. I hobbled to first base and immediately sat down before being helped from the field. I had pulled my quadriceps in both legs. The rest of the game was spent with bottles of cold Gatorade strapped to me before I was carried to a car and driven home to recover in misery.
WHAT IS A MUSCLE STRAIN?
A muscle strain or colloquially a “pulled muscle,” is the stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon. The worse the tear, the worse the pain. The signs of a muscle pull or strain are:*
- Immediate pain
- Difficulty moving the injured muscle
- Possible discoloration or bruising
If there is bleeding, excessive swelling, or a total inability to move the muscle, seek medical attention immediately.
Pulling or straining a muscle is caused by expending too much physical effort when unprepared (example: running a marathon without training for the distance,) skipping warmups (example: going straight to bat in a softball game,) or any sort of accidental overstretching of a muscle (example: straining a back muscle while diving for a dropped cell phone.) Strain is not to be confused with sprain, which is the equivalent injury to a ligament rather than a muscle or tendon.
HOW TO TREAT A MUSCLE STRAIN
Remember hearing the acronym RICE in gym class? The same treatment is prescribed today.
R – Rest. Let the injured muscle heal for at least a few days, and even after that take it easy while the muscle fibers rebuild.
I – Ice. Ice the affected area for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Any longer can do more damage than good thanks to the Hunting Response wherein blood starts to flow to the injured area faster to prevent damage to the tissue from too much cold. (Read comments for more specific directions)
C – Compression. Wrap the affected area with an ACE bandage or other support appropriate for your type of injury. Never wrap so tightly that circulation is hindered.
E – Elevation. While resting that muscle, keep it lifted to the same elevation as the heart as much as possible. Keeping blood from pooling in the area will help speed up recovery and lessen pain.
EDIT: Thanks to the comments, I’ll add a recommendation here to see a licensed, trained Massage Therapist with experience in injury recovery. This is especially helpful in the management of scar tissue formation.
HOW TO PREVENT A MUSCLE STRAIN
- Build up. Slowly ramp up training over a period of time, particularly for any sort of distance or endurance event.
- STRETCH. The type of stretching you do will depend on the workout (example: static stretches are not recommended before a run,) but regardless of the exercise, some amount of warm up and cool down is always in order. Check out Physio Advisor for particular types of preventative stretching.
- Regular exercise. Unlucky muscle injuries caused by every day events are less likely to occur if you are keeping muscles and tendons flexible and strong.
- Don’t ignore pain. If alarm bells go off in your head that some pain isn’t normal, LISTEN. Overdoing it is a common source of muscle injury. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of physical therapy bills.